THE CEF CHAMPAGNE BATTLEFIELD TOUR
Laid out before the 2006 Champagne Expeditionary Force were the German Armies’ three lines of defence held by them for four years of the Great War. The platform on top of the American Sommepy Monument gave us a clear view of the Blanc-Mont ridge’s flexible defences, the second line in the valley to the south and the Tahure and Souain ridges beyond, so heavily fought over in 1915. The French groundsman, with his son maintaining the site, were delighted to answer questions and tell us how American tourists react.
It was the 22nd of August when the CEF left London for Rheims and the start of the tour. Inspecting the destroyed Nauroy chapel before driving along the Moronvillers ridge showed us the destructive effect of French shellfire. Passing through Auberive it was difficult to believe this now quiet village was once one of the most ferociously defended points on the Western Front. Turning up the muddy track at les Wacques we paused at the French memorial to the 28th Brigade to see the series of ridges with their reverse slopes that made such an excellent position for the German defenders. Remarking on the almost Tuetonic severity of the cross and the surrounding tablets, the speculation was this brigade was from Alsace – that corner of France seized by the Prussians in 1871. At 17.00 hrs the CEF’s three cars were drawn up at the Navarin Farm monument topped by its magnificent statues of three poilus. The three carved faces are modeled on Genri Henri Gouraud, commander of the 4th Army, the Ameican pilot Quentin Roosevelt, son of the US President, and the sculptor, Maxime Real Del Sarte.
At 18.00 hrs, as planned, the CEF convoy swept into the Camp de Suippes. After bunking down in a block for French officers attending the range’s live-firing exercises, we repaired to the canteen for the first of excellent value for money meals. Thereafter we decided to sample the hostelries of Suippes to find to our dismay that they were shut. After an abortive drive into the French countryside, on returning we found by chance one whose proprietor was a military fanatic. With wine, beer and coffee on our tables, we were able to pour over the maps needed for the next day’s tour. Bill Philpott had obtained original maps from Palat’s official history published in the 1920s to supplement the copies of the military map given me in 2001.
Next morning was 5 years to the day since my reconnaissance of the Champagne Battlefield. The Camp’s commander was still Major Verite and he asked Sergeant Eric Marchal to be our guide as Eric is also the historian of the ruined villages. We began by visiting the memorial to the Foreign Legion which had punched through the Sabot wood to almost seize the Souain ridge but at tremendous cost. Eric’s knowledge of the ground allowed us to see the remnants of the German trench systems at the wood and later on the ridge.
Following his ‘Jeep’, the two Vauxhall Omegas driven by Bill Cox and Simon House carried the seven of us, including Andy Grainger, along the pebble and clay tracks to inspect the ruined villages of Tahure, Perthes-les-Hurlus, Hurlus and le Mesnil-les-Hurlus. Since 2001, a path to one of the great mines dug under the German lines had been cleared so we were able to compare it with those seen at les Eparges, the Somme, Messines, and elsewhere.
After lunch we inspected the very few remaining stones of the heavily fought-over Beausejour Farm, then on to the Mesnil ridge with its scattering of mud-caked shells and wire cutters. Earlier on the Tahure ridge, we had seen lying on the ground unexploded grenades with live ammunition. When showing Brenda Binge a cartridge she rapidly handed it back on being told it was still live. And for me one mystery was partly cleared up. How did the soldiers fix the barbed wire to the metal stakes, especially when wiring at night? Separating lengths of wire were small flat plates with holes the diameter of the stakes to which the wire was clamped. So the plates could be slotted on to the stakes and slid down to where required. But this was German wire and I have not seen such plates on British and French barbed wire.
At the ruined village of Ripont we saw the two family graves for descendents of the Ripont villagers and the memorial to the German defenders. But we did not carry on along the ridged track to inspect the stone bridge over the Dormoise stream, that survived completely intact the artillery gunfire, as it was late in the afternoon. Returning to the offices to thank the French Military, there was still time to squeeze in the local bar before supper. Brenda ordering a round of drinks caused consternation because the bar keeper and the French men there could not comprehend a woman buying drinks. Once the culture clash had been resolved we said goodbye to Andy Grainger and John Badley who were leaving to rejoin Jane Hills.
That evening we chatted too long over supper to find ourselves locked in behind the high fences. Deciding we were too old to what comes naturally to under-graduates re-entering their halls of residence, we rang Security to come and unlock the gate !
Next day the first stop was the sombre Minaucourt cemetery where the long lines of French crosses and the numbers of large burial pits brought home the human cost of the first two battles of Champagne. Climbing the Hand of Massiges and looking down to where the French assault lines had been between the ‘fingers’ made us realize why Petain had to move his Alpine 75s from the Vosges mountains to land shells on the German trenches. Unlike the ridges to the west, the French cleared the ridge and held it against ferocious counter-attacks. On to the land north of the Camp we stopped at the tiny village of Rouvroy that had added the name Ripont to keep the memory of that ruined village alive (as has been done with the names of the other ruined villages).
Leaving the village we drove along the side of the second German line to Sommepy-Tahure, passing a sign to the American monument: so after filling up with petrol we diverted to the monument. Our new understanding of the topography let us see how critical the failure was to drive the Germans off the Souain and Tahure ridges. It took until General Gouraud weakened the German forces there in 1918 by a clever trick that the French with the American forces were able to surge over these ridges, use tanks to overwhelm the second line and then break through the third and final line.
Afte lunch at the Rheims civilian airfield, we went to the Pompelle fort to see the amazing Friese collection of German helmets. The CEF then split up, Bill Philpott and Simon House leaving to tour the battle of the Frontiers battlefield in the Ardennes. Bill Cox, Brenda Binge and I headed for Calais through heavy rain that at one stage reduced visibility to nothing.
Each of us took away our own memories of the Champagne battlefield but all now understood better the military problems the French commanders under Joffre faced in trying to link the with those in Artois and Loos (25 September 1915). The topography was too tricky to assault with the weaponry then available but but the two offensives had to be attempted if the French and British were to drive the German Armies back to the Rhine. Nevertheless the French learned from Champagne and were able to withstand the enormous pressure exerted at Verdun before spectacularly breaking through the German lines on the Somme on the First of July 1916. Unfortunately British military learning was not so far advanced and the French success was allowed to congeal into the months of attritional warfare.
A report by George Bailey, 29 August 2006.