World War 1

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In August 2015, I cycled from Hautvilliers in the Champagne region of France to Ypres in the Flanders region of Belgium passing by many sights associated with World War 1. This page has details of my trip through north west Champagne and along the Chemin des Dames. My trip through the Somme is included here and through Flanders here and Ypres here.  To be perfectly honest, I found the whole experience of travelling along the Chemin des Dames, through the Somme and onto Flanders slightly chilling despite the good weather and warm sunshine. What was really surprising is that there was hardly any trace of  the war to be seen. There were no trenches leftover from the battlefield and any ruined buildings have long since been demolished or re-built. In the words of Piet Chielons, the director of the In Flanders Fields museum in Ypres, World War 1 has been “sanitised” by building huge monuments in the years following the Armistice. Cemeteries have row after row of neat gravestones whereas the reality is most of the bodies buried in each cemetery are unidentified to this day. Memorials speak of a glorious death whereas the reality was that most of the soldiers died shot or blown to pieces trying to gain a few yards of mud. World War 1 was slaughter pure and simple and the so called “statesmen” responsible for it have never truly been held to account for what was a clusterf*ck. The people of Europe were badly let down by their leaders 100 years ago and no amount of memorials that have been built since will make up for the insanity that was World War 1.

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World War 1 cemetery at Marfaux. This was the first of hundreds of cemeteries I was to come across this week. Most of these soldiers were killed in Spring 1918 when the Germans launched an attack to surround Reims but were fought back by Allied forces.

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Bligny-Chambrecy Italian cemetery. I was well aware that Italy had joined the Allies in World War 1 in 1915 and had fought a bloody campaign in the Italian Alps against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But  I had no idea that Italian troops had fought here on the Western Front. It turns out that Italy sent a total of 41,000 troops to help the French repel the German advance in Spring 1918. Over 5,000 Italians were killed here in Champagne-Ardennes and over 3,000 of them are buried in a cemetery on a hill overlooking the town of Bligny.

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Town hall in Fismes. For such a small dot on a map, Fismes is quite a large town and has quite a lot of history to it. 3 times it has been destroyed; first by the English in the Hundred Years war, then in 1814, by the Prussians fighting Napoleon and finally during World War 1 in 1918.

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Town hall in Fismes in 1918. The battle of Fismes in August 1918 was one of the most vicious in the whole of the First World War. After the failure in the Second Battle of the Marne, German troops retreated to Fismes and set up a new front along the Vesle river. On 3rd August 1918, American troops tried to break through this new front by attacking Fismes. This battle was unique because of the extreme violence and street fighting that occurred, as well as the presence of storm trooper attacks and flame throwers. Most of the battles in WW1 took place on farmland whereas this battle was street to street, just like Stalingrad.  Over the course of just a month, Fismes would be lost and won again five times by the Allied forces.

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Memorial on bridge between Fismes and Fismette. The inscription says “This bridge is dedicated to the 28th American Army Division from the state of Pennsylvania and to those soldiers who gave their lives to liberate Fismes.” On August 4th 1918, exactly 97 years ago, over 3,000 Americans were killed trying to capture this bridge, which is almost as many as were killed during the Twin Towers attack on 9-11.

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British WW1 cemetery in Vendresse. The cemetery is located on an approach road to the Chemin des Dames ridge. Most of the soldiers in this cemetery were killed in May 1918 when the Germans attacked the Allied positions during the Third Battle of the Aisne.

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French cemetery and memorial at Cerny-en-Laonnois. This cemetery is just one of 11 French cemeteries along a 30 km stretch of the Chemin des Dames in Aisne. This ridge was the scene of fierce fighting in April 1917, when in the space of just 10 days, over 400,000 soldiers were killed mostly French. That is more troops than were killed in the first 10 days of the Battle of the Somme and the loss of life nearly led to a mutiny by the remaining French forces. The failure of this attack led to the French commander, General Nivelle being dismissed and being replaced by Phillippe Petain. Petain promised his troops no more suicidal attacks, longer holiday breaks and also pardoned many of the mutineers. Only for Petain, who after WW2 would be sentenced to death for treason for leading the Vichy government, the French forces could have completely collapsed all along the Western Front.

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Tourist information sign at Cerny-en-Loannois. Beneath the Chemin des Dames ridge is a network of caves called “The Dragon’s Lair” (La Caverne du Dragon). The caves were excavated by tunnelers in the 17th century extracting limestone for building projects. These caves were used by both German and French forces during WW1 as field hospitals and command posts, sometimes even at the same time.

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Church in small village of Monthenault. Every house and building in this village has been built since 1918. There is no trace of any structure here from before WW1.

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