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David_Blanchard

Aisne- Chemin des Dames Battle May- June 1918

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David_Blanchard

Yves,

Thanks for your contribution.

I think the key to understanding the displacement of French and British troops on top of the Chemin des Dames, is like you said best understood in terms of the French defence of Verdun. The Chemin des Dames ridge had been wrested from the Germans in the Nivelle Offensive of 1917, at a tremendous cost in lives lost. Like the British at Ypres, holding the salient made little tactical or strategic sense, but to pull back and straighten the trench lines would have been resisted by both British military and Political authorities, as so many mens lives had been lost, the rationale was to be that the salient had to be defended at all costs.

So in a like manner to Verdun and Ypres, the Chemin des Dames became a potent symbol of resistence: another 'Voie Sacree'. A withdrawl back across the Aisne - a much more sensible military strategy, and advocated as such by many British officers of the IX Corps- would have smacked too much of defeatism.

Regards

David

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David_Blanchard

Yves,

Sorry I forgot to mention in my last post, but as Battlefield Guide do you have any other books you would recommend for a study of this battle?

Regards

David

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

Good evening David

thanks for your wise comments....I also want to specify that I do not want to judge anybody ..I just want to know the truth.. to pass on to the next generations the facts

For sure Gen Duchêne thought it would have been a foolish idea to leave the Chemin Des Dames to the Germans without fighting..just because of the bloodbath paid to take some parts of it in spring and summer 1917...the French opinion and French deputees or French government ( an other question is what is the responsability of French politicians in this tragic disaster ?)...note also that this situation and this way to think was very near of the British V army on the 21 march 1918.

So to answer your question about French books..I know none ..just because at the moment at last French historians focuse their study mainly about 1917 Chemin des Dames battle , the mutinees and the men shot at down 5 with the rease of archives we know now that just 27 men were shot after the 1917 mutinees ). to understand the importance of this "Holyground" one of the last study made ( but almost nothing about 1918 fighting) is the book : Le Chemin des Dames " Nicolas Offenstadt Stock editions 2004.

For 6 years I have been researching French diaries .. very few men survived .. and those very few of them are describing the 27 may 1918 battle...In the following days ( months ? joke !!!) I shall translate some of them in English language.

I keep in contact..it is just the start

regards

Yves

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David_Blanchard

Yves,

I think its important that this particular thread remains active. The Chemin des Dames/ Aisne is a fascinating part of the Western Front that has long been neglected. Most British vistors to France and Belgium will naturally head to the Somme and Ypres and as a result the Aisne is sadly overlooked. For me the battle of the Aisne in 1918 is personally very interesting with my family connections so therefore I am naturally biased, but the countryside of the region is much more imposing than either the Somme or Flanders.

Yves, if more information is added about the area, your battlefield guiding will be even more in demand!

Just as a matter of interest, are most of the people you guide French, or are a guide for British or German vistors?

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Robert Dunlop

David and Yves, strictly speaking the Chemin des Dames ridge was not taken in Nivelle's offensive. Parts of it were occupied but the Germans retained control. The ridge was abandoned by the Germans in response to the wonderfully executed Battle of Malmaison in October 1917. Petain ensured that the Malmaison flank was captured, thereby exposing the rest of the ridge in enfilade. Ludendorff ordered the withdrawal back across the Ailette.

The ridge is not really like Ypres. As you know, it is quite a spectacular piece of geography. The valleys on either side are very exposed, which makes forming up for an attack quite difficult. The numerous shelters, caves and old quarries afforded a much greater level of protection to the defenders than was ever possible in Ypres. The ridge itself is not overlooked in the way Ypres was. It does not have much depth though. This meant that it was best held lightly, with reliance either on counter-attacks from protected positions to recover ground or on a second line of defence along the far bank of the Aisne as the fall-back position.

Jean de Pierrefeu gives some very interesting insights into the rationale for the defensive stance taken in response to the impending German attack in May. In his book 'French Headquarters', he wrote:

'With his usual boldness and that splendid confidence with which he knew so well how to inspire others, Foch accelerated the move of his reserve divisions northwards.

Pétain, more prudent, a believer in safety first, convinced that a Fabian policy was necessary and that a counter-attack could only succeed at a time when the enemy was exhausted, which was still distant, would have preferred that the north should not be favoured at the expense of the rest of the front. I have been told that at the end of May, scarcely a week before the German attack, he tried to retain the last reserves, whose movement north-west had just been ordered. Foch, staking his last card, would have none of it.

Besides, everything confirmed him in his idea. During the end of April, and several times during the last fortnight of May, the Germans showed already that their attention was fixed entirely on the scene of their former offensive, both by attempting violent attacks in the neighbourhood of Hangard-en-Santerre and Locre, and by making desparate efforts to repel our counter-attacks. The discoveries of the Second Bureau [intelligence] confirmed the idea that if anything was in preparation it was in the region where it was expected; elsewhere there was nothing to signify.

But to complete the analysis, it must be confessed that if these indications seemed sufficient to us, it was because we had not taken enough trouble to instruct ourselves as to the enemy's intentions. Our troops did not penetrate deeply enough into the enemy's lines. Further, the special Intelligence Section, that mysterious organization that had a secret network and agents among the enemy, had been attached through a regrettable error to the ordinary Intelligence Department, with which it had nothing to do. [This lead to] disorganization of this wonderful service.

There was also a certain carelessness as to the rest of the front. And if one sector seemed safe enough, it was the Chemin des Dames. Why were we so certain of our security in this region? First, because, since the offensive of April 16th, when our troops dashed themselves in vain against the defences of the plateau, we had considered them impregnable. So sure of this were we that we had sent to the absolutely peaceful sector the Franco-British divisions exhausted in the last battle. Second, because another factor of great importance had supervened.

In order to demonstrate the importance of this factor, it will be well to trace it from its source. Since General Pétain spent the greater part of his time at his Command Post at Chantilly, General Anthoine, the Major-General, had become the virtual Chief at GQG (French GHQ).

In the eyes of the Staff, General Anthoine's defects were great. He had an abrupt and satiric manner... and quickly made himself unpopular by his internal regulations, which were certainly not without reason, but were applied with the harshness and inconsiderateness typical of him. Further, one thing which everybody in the Army knew must be mentioned, he was a brother-in-law of General Duchêne. He was extremely bad-tempered, always grumbling and finding fault. The natual result was that [Duchêne] Staff was always on edge and quarrelling, not daring to take responsibility; its members, most of whom were good men, were discouraged, and had no enthusiasm for work.

Under such conditions a Staff works badly. The departments lacked co-ordination. The Major-General was accused of shielding his brother-in-law and hiding his mistakes. As for the attack of May 27th, the Staff of the Sixth Army, which was holding the Chemin des Dames, had not the least idea of the preparations which the enemy had been making for a month on this front [until two German prisioners were interrogating on the evening before the attack]. It was declared at GQG that there was nothing surprising in this, that if General Duchêne had not unfortunately been in command in this sector, any sort of Staff, especially after the lesson of March 21st, should have been able to find out something of what was going on.'

The last reason smacks of scape-goating. De Pierrefeu states 'I do not know whether these remarks were justified'. To my mind, the notion that 'it was hard to take therefore it will be hard to retake' could easily lead to a false sense of security. Who knows. Interesting anyway and adds some more background to this story.

Robert

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David_Blanchard

Hello Robert,

Do you have a particular interest in the Chemin des Dames battle? Or a general interest in terms strategy/tactics in the German offensives of 1918?

Just one point from what you say above: the Ypres Salient and the Chemin des Dames ridge are of course completely different in terms of topography but similar in terms of symbolic importance for the British and French respectively. Also I guess in terms of geographical significance: the capture of either these two areas by the enemy would have opened up the way to the channel ports with regard to the British, and the Germans would have been within striking distance of Paris had the Aisne front collapsed, which of course did happen at the beginning of June 1918.

David

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Robert Dunlop

David, I have an interest in both aspects. No personal connection with the May 27th offensive but it was part of the string of German offensives, as you know. The battles in the Chemin des Dames region, from 1914 through 1918, are of interest too.

You are quite right about the symbolic significance, though Verdun more closely matches Ypres I suspect. The capture of Chemin des Dames need not have opened up the way to Paris. Had the far bank of the Aisne been well defended (ie the bank that the BEF occupied in 1914), as had been proposed by Pétain but refused by Duchêne, then the Germans would have had a MUCH harder time. In essence, the Aisne would have acted as the same kind of brake as the Marne did. As you know, the British recognised the signs of the impending attack and were really annoyed when Duchêne refused to allow them to defend their sector more appropriately.

Robert

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

David

I just try to speak English and german languages and still going learning French language.

I shall post asap a translation of a French front line diary

I must take off

Yves

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

Good day

Here is the first part of Translation Extracted from Diary of 38 years old Lieutenant J . Miquelis

173e territorial Brigade. Cerny en Laonnois sector. Chemin Des Dames.

26 May 1918

In the evening, order to stand to and before night to collect ammunitions and barbed wire. 11 pm, order to shelter the men against bombardment and to get out after artillery barrage passing. The cooks stay in Troyon with the sick men. Enemy shellfire begins at 12 pm 40 very violent. First tear gas shells: Sergeant Fersal and the sentry outside come in saying : “ Gas gas !” and spew up all they have.

I put under culver just one sentry to be relieve every half an hour with order to bring me any man who will pass by in the large communication trench of our trench, whatever direction he goes. I order to wear gas helmets, to load rifles, to open hand-grenades boxes and to install them on the steps of our shelter, to close the entrances with canvas sprinkled with hyposulfite

of soda ( with vermorel sprayer)

The enemy barrage moves on , it comes close then goes away; it seems more intense on our left. Under heavy shell burst the shelter pitch. I put myself under the biggest wooden beamof our shelter with a spade and a pickaxe on my side and I wait. I have in front of myself the map of the sector and signals code. At any moment I wait to be buried.

French shells pass obliquely over our shelter; it is the 75mm battery of Paissy village which alone unmastered , counterstroke. Inside my shelter the tempest lamp is blown twice by the explosions.

TO BE CONTINUED

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sandyford

6th BATTALION NORTHUMBERLAND FUSILIERS - War Diary - May 1918

CONCEVREUX

25th May 1918

Training.

The Battalion relieved 4th Northd. Fus. in support on night of 25th/26th.

Dispositions:-

'A' Coy between B. de la MUSETTE & B. D'ISSOUDIN

'B' Coy in line of Redoubts.

'C' Coy between B. D'ISSOUDIN & B. DES MILLEJOURE.

'D' Coy in P.C. Kleber.

26th May 1918

In front line.

About 7.30p.m. - Orders received to 'Take preliminary defensive measures'.

11.0p.m - Artillery commenced counter preparatory scheme.

27th May 1918

1.0a.m -

Enemy put down barrage of exraordinary intensity on the whole area - mixed H. E. & gas.

This fire was very accurate and caused heavy casualties to the troops 'Standing to'.

Counter battery work was very effective putting many of our guns out of action.

All communications with Brigade H.Q. were out by 3.0a.m.

3.45a.m. -

Enemy attacked all along the line. The first attacks seem to have been in a South Easterly direction parallel with Route 44

4.15a.m.

Battle Line came into action. By this time the Counter battery work had been so successful that our artillery was totally ineffective in supporting the infantry.

4.45a.m.

The battle Line was taken in the rear from the direction of LA VILLE AU BOIS.

No one returned from the centre and right Coys of this line.

Remainder of Left Coy. under Lt. Col. GIBSON, 4th Northd. Fus. withdrew at 5.0a.m.

This party consisted of 40 men.

5.30a.m.

Redoubt line and P.C. KLEBER outflanked and cut off from BOIS DE BUTTS.

8.0a.m.

Remainder of battalion formed part of Composite Brigade which withdrew to CHAUDAEDES.

8.30a.m.

All details of Transport Lines billeted in CONCEVREUX organised under MAJOR ROBB, 4th Northd. Fus. and MAJOR ROGERS.

9.0a.m.

Enemy crossed PONTAVERT Bridges and advanced down both banks of the Canal.

10.0a.m.

Party in CHAUDARDES withdrew across AISNE owing to enemy advance on to high ground to N. W. and advance down river from PONTAVERT.

Details and remainder of brigade organised on line CONCEVREUX bridge - Canal Bank - to bridge at 47.47 (BERRY AU BAC 1/20,000) thence to West end of wood.

May 28th, 29th, 30th & 31st

Driven from this line about 4.0p.m.

The remnants of the Battalion, now incorporated in Composite Coys and submerged in other Divisions, including 6th, 21st & 25th Divisions, took part in rearguard actions until the end of the month.

L. D. SCOTT

Lt. Col. Commanding 6th Batt. Northd. Fus.

21st June 1918

Appendix

Casualties 6th Battn. Northd. Fus. May 1918

Killed in Action - OFFICERS - 2 OTHER RANKS - 8

Wounded - OFFICERS - 8 OTHER RANKS - 71

Missing - OFFICERS - 13 OTHER RANKS - 541

Wounded & Missing - OFFICERS - 5 OTHER RANKS - 12

Officer casualties are named and dated and all except one casualty is 27/05/1918.

Other ranks are totalled and not named or dated.

Strength of Battn. on 1st May 1918 - Officers - 34 Other Ranks - 947

Strength of Battn. on 31st May 1918 - Officers - 12 Other Ranks - 323

Kate

Edited by sandyford

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sandyford

Yves

Sorry to appear in the middle of your posting but it was my only time on the computer.

David and all who have contributed - this is a very useful and interesting thread and shows the full possibilities of the battlefield approach.

The maps posted at the beginning are excellent and I would like to be able to follow positions on the trench maps of this area.

Kate

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

Dear kate

No worries ..thanks for your excellent contribution..on my side I keep going translation here is the followin

Around 4.30 Jammes , watcher, comes down the steps and shouts me : “the Boches are here ! they have shot at me !” .I answer him : “you had the wind up; it’s a shell splinter which has passed by your ears. Go back to your post. I come with you.”. He half turns . Climbing up the stair I take two hand-grenades in hands from the box. Jammes has a look outside and return like the wind saying :” I tell you they are here !”. I go to the entrance, which the opening is sheltered against shell splinters by a wooden culver with logs covered with earth. In the trench, a Boche is knelt down, aims at me with his Mauser. I jump on the right to reach the large communication trench and to get rid myself of this nuisance with my hand-grenades. On the parapet of the communication trench I see feet, I watch up: a Boche looked at me coming, his automatic pistol in hand, aimed at me ; surprise I turn round . On the culvert, 6 Boches overcame me with their automatic pistols in hand. They speak to me in German , and show me to enter the shelter; I reply in French. My quartermaster sergeant Baccou comes and shouts at me : “ My Lieutenant , don’t shoot, they are English who come to help us. ( We had on our right , near Craonne , an English Divison reconstituted after Montdidier rout)

“- They are Boches, you do not see their helmets ?”

To be continued

g

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David_Blanchard

Thanks Kate and Yves for your contributions.

Neil Storey's website devoted to the 4th Northumberland Fusiliers has a section devoted to the actions of the 149th Brigade on the 27th May 1918: Click Here

The trench map of the area reproduced is particularly impressive.

David

Edited by David_Blanchard

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sandyford

David

Thank you. Neil's website is excellent. I had visited it a long time ago. At the time I was mainly looking at St. Julien.

The trench map of the area of Concevreux is a big help in following the actions.

Yves

Your Lieutenant was right, they were not English at all were they.

Kate

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David_Blanchard

Kate,

This photograph maybe of interest.

Lieutenant ALAN RYDER HALL



6th Bn., Northumberland Fusiliers

who died

on 30 May 1918

Remembered with honour

SOISSONS MEMORIAL



HallAlan6thNF305182Soissons.jpg

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David_Blanchard

Alan Hall's photograph is from the 'Illustrated London News 1918'

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David_Blanchard

When British units of the IX Corps arrived on the Aisne in early May 1918 they took over a section of the frontline from French troops. This exchange is illustrated in the photograph below:

6260517350_592d9bf2d0_o.jpg

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David_Blanchard

One of the few German sources concerned with the battle is Durchbruch anno Achtzehn by Erhard Wittek.

This book is dedicated to Hauptmann Hans von Ravenstein who won the Pour le Mérite for his role in the Aisne battle:

He was the commanding officer of I Battalion of Füsilier-Regiment von Steinmetz (1. Westpreußisches) Nr.37

' 23 June 1918: Awarded the Prussian Order Pour le Mérite for distinction in action during the engagement and capture of the Chatelet Woods on the Western Front. [On 27 May 1918, Oberleutnant von Ravenstein and six of his men, mounted on bicycles, dashed ahead of his battalion and seized a vital bridge over the river Aisne near Chemin des Dames. The seven men held French troops at bay with hand grenades until joined by the remainder of the battalion. On 31 May 1918, von Ravenstein's regiment suffered heavy losses attacking French positions near the Chatelet Woods. Ordered to attack again, von Ravenstein and 15 volunteers infiltrated the French lines and occupied the deserted Genevroy Farm in the enemy rear. A French battalion approached through the woods to investigate the farmhouse but was promptly put to flight with many casualties by heavy machinegun fire delivered by von Ravenstein's volunteers. His actions allowed Füsilier Regiment 37 to continue its advance and capture the Chatelet Woods.]

# June 1918: Promoted to Hauptmann.'

6260555494_ccf441edd1_b.jpg

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sandyford

David

Thank you so much. What will you produce next?

Lt. Alan Ryder Hall is one of the two officers Killed in Action in this battle and he is the only one who was not a casualty of 27th May. He was Killed in Action on 30th May, when, according to the War Diary, the 6th were involved in rearguard action as part of a Composite Battalion.

The narrative of the War Diaries often detail an advance into a murderous bombardment.

In the case of this battle the terse statements of the War diaries seem particularly chilling.

'4.45a.m. The Battle Line was taken in the rear from the direction of La Ville Au Bois. No one returned from the centre and right Coys of this line.

and

9.0a.m. Enemy crossed Pontavert bridges & advanced down both banks of the Canal.'

The earlier discussion about the geographical features of the area, ridge, woods and river, certainly make it seem that the river would have been a more easily defensible barrier.

It is interesting to read the account of Hauptmann Hans von Ravenstein, which shows that the German losses were also heavy in their attack against the French in Chatelet woods on the 31st May.

Kate

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

Good Day

Here is the end of my transalation hope that it is of interest for all.

"My quartermaster rush for ward inside the shelter. After having again negociate a little bit with the Germans without understanding each other, I hide in the parapet my hand-grenades by now impossible to use and I decide to enter the shelter to destroy the signal codes and the map sector. I rush down the stairs. My men were inside the first room, paralysed with fear. I shout at them : “ Go to the other exit ! join the warrant officer’s platoon” and I run to where mes documents were. I burnt them. At this moment, hand-grenades thrown by the Boches burst inside the shelter and the explosion put out of fire my documents which I blaze up again. None of my men had been hit because they had quickly obeyed my order.

They flow back to the second exit which is also on guard.” To the third exit !” My documents destroyed, I follow the men in the dark. A man said “My lieutenant do not leave me !”

“- Hang’s up my greatcoat “

The exit is collapsed by the shells. I walk on all fours in the running soil, tugging at the man hanging my greatcoat from time to time .I reach the opening and the trench and go to the right vers The Poteau d4Ailles, but I am quickly stopped by my men who flow back : We are surrounded !”.

Lieutenant Miquelis was taken prisoner . He went back to France on 23rd December 1918. He was a teacher and passed away in 1971.

Regards

Yves

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Robert Dunlop

Thank you Yves. It is a very vivid account. How he survived the explosion of the German grenades in the dugout - that was lucky. The tunnel into the dugout must have been able to absorb most of the effect, perhaps because of the way it was constructed.

Robert

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Robert Dunlop
There are few books which deal with the battle

David, Sulzbach mentions the battle in his book 'With the German Guns'. He was a German artillery officer. Sulzbach's diary accounts are filled with the sense of glorious victory but you also get a clear sense of the losses that were sustained as well.

Robert

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Yves Le Cuziat, MBE

Good day Robert

Yes you are right to mention German losses of may 1918...among them was 20 years old Kanonier Albert Ruhe .brother of the bishop of Trier.buried in Cerny en Laonnois German cemetery..in 1960 his brother Willy ...planted a cyprès nearby the grey cross...in 1962 Adenauer with de Gaulle visited his grave..unfortunately alst year the cyprès was cut by a team of German war graves commission

Regards

Yves

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sandyford

Yves

Good to know that Lt. Miqhelis survived the war and was able to give this excellent first hand account of these events. The urgency and confusion are well captured. Thank you for the translation.

It is sad that the cyprus planted by Albert Ruhe's grave in 1962 was cut. I expect it had grown to a considerable size by 2005.

Kate

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David_Blanchard

Yves and Robert,

Thanks for the additinal information. I believe Herbert Sulzbach served with the 63rd Frankfurt Field Artillery. He has much to say about the German preparations for the Aisne battle and new developments in the way artillery batteries were linked with particluar infantry battalions which helped to maintain forward momentum as the German offensive rolled on crossing the Aisne towards the Marne.

David

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