Sunday, 1 September 2013

Visiting the Chemin des Dames

The family summer holiday this year was to the Aisne in Picardy, specifically to a gite in the tiny village of Vendresse a few km’s south of the Chemin des Dames. Now, since we have the not-so-little ones with us the amount of Great War sites we could visit was rather limited. However, we did a few things so I thought I’d post up some notes and pictures of our visit to this very beautiful part of France.

Chemin des Dames
This is a very prominent and picturesque limestone ridge between the Aisne and Ailette rivers. Also the site of much fierce fighting during WW1. Rather than repeat a lot of information here, follow these links if you'd like to know more.

In the very early part of the war, Sept 1914, the forces arrayed to hold the ridge included a number of British battalions. Therefore there are a few British cemeteries in the area. Here’s the one at Vendresse.

As always, very well kept but sombre and thought provoking. Of interest here were the following inscriptions on headstones.


Not seen "Buried near this spot" and "Believed to be" on CWGC headstones before.

Also, during the fortnight there was a new inhumation. No particular details but a reminder that even today the fields of northern France are still giving up the bodies of the fallen. Rest in peace.

Caverne du Dragon
As with other limestone areas, the ridge has many old quarries that were quickly utilised by the troops on the Chemin des Dames. The 'Caverne' is one such place.
The English language guided tour is at mid-day. Take a warm jumper as the underground environment is a steady 11-12 degrees! It's guided tours only as a good deal of the caverns have yet to be fully explored and undisturbed grenades and explosives are common! As the guide says, it's fine as long as you don't go poking about in the rubble!

It's easy to see why the ridge was such a key feature. Look at the following panoramic shot.

Situated on the ridge itself, this is a large French cemetery, with a German cemetery beyond.

Another British cemetery, adjacent to a French cemetery.

Of note here is the headstone of the first British General to be killed in the Great War, Brigadier General Neil Findlay CB, Commanding 1st Division Royal Artillery.

(If you're wondering why there are several cemeteries in the post then that's because it was easy to stop for a few minutes whilst en-route to more "exciting" destinations!)

Fort de Conde
Originally built in the mid 1800’s this site was quickly overrun in WW1. But still worth a visit, plus it has a good picnic and play area outside.

An overview of the site

The main gate.

One of the main gun "turrets". Within this armoured hill the gun could swing more than 45 degrees from left to right. The noise must have deafened the gunners!

One of the courtyards showing the very overgrown platforms where lighter calibre artillery would have been deployed.

The remaining part of the barracks, mostly officers rooms and a kitchen.

As I mentioned earlier, only a few blog-worthy sites were visited but I hope that this has given you a small insight in to this lovely area of France.

If you're visiting the area with family then we can definitely recommend a trip to Parc Asterix (about 1.5hrs away) as it's a superb theme park. Laon is described as having wonderful medieval ramparts but we were a bit disappointed, although the swimming pool at 'Le Dome' is very good! At Witry-les-Reims there is a very good tree-top adventure park called "Grimpobranches" - go in to Witry and then follow the the D88 to Berru. Hope that's of some use!


Ray Rousell said...

Some great pics, its always a bit sombre visiting the war graves but does make you feel quite proud.

Ubique Matt said...

The "Buried near this spot" and "Believed to be" inscriptions are normally seen on early CWGC headstones (as seen here - 1914) near the front line and which were subsequently destroyed by shelling. When later used as concentration cemeteries the general, but not the exact, grave location is know and hence the inscription. The whole CWGC story is fascinating. Thanks for posting the photos.


Sidney Roundwood said...

Matt, wonderful post! Thanks so much for posting these photos and for the excellent recommendations for locations to stay and visit. I definitely want to get over to the Chemin Des Dames one day. Thanks again!

Matt said...

Thanks chaps!

@Ray - yes, it does make you feel proud of our ancestors.

@Ubique Matt - Many thanks for the info.

@Sidney - Glad you enjoyed the post.



Quentin said...

Good post. Like the fort. But glad to hear you were forced into more cheerful activities at least part of the time.