he Aisne River flows in a northeast direction through northern France, at least until it reaches Reims, where it bends nearly due west and continues to its confluence with the Oise, and then on to the Seine and into the English Channel at Honfleur and Le Havre. The scenery alongside its banks is tranquil and bucolic, lined with trees and pastures as it has been for centuries.
In 1917 a ferocious battle was fought between French and German armies for a ridge near the Aisne River called Chemin des Dames, which translates to English as “the ladies’ path,” and was the preferred route for the daughters of Louis XV when they journeyed from Paris to the Château de Boves.
The battle at Chemin des Dames, also known as the Second Battle of the Aisne (there would be a third too, because two slaughters are never enough), was intended to be a game-changer for the French. Long before 1917, the Western Front had become the bloody stalemate of senseless and futile trench warfare that is the lasting image of World War I. But Chemin des Dames was supposed to change that.
The French had a new man in charge, Robert Nivelle, and Nivelle had a plan: the French would shellac the Germans with artillery for two weeks prior to the actual attack, then send hundreds of thousands of infantrymen forward against the Germans under what was known as a creeping barrage.
A creeping barrage is a tactic where artillery shells are fired so they drop in front of attacking troops with hope that arms, legs, and lives will be separated from defenders when the attackers arrive. While the creeping barrage sounded good in theory, and it had in fact worked well before, it failed spectacularly at Chemin des Dames.
At Chemin des Dames, French artillery shells, for whatever reason, fell short and landed among their own men, blowing them up. German soldiers, seeing French troops advancing in the open with artillery falling among or behind them, came out of the mines and quarries that dotted the ridge in which they’d sheltered and laced the French with withering machine gun fire. The carnage was immense. The French lost 40,000 men in the first day of fighting.
In the end the battle at Chemin des Dames was a spectacular failure for the French, although certainly not due to lack of courage on the part of the French infantry. French casualties came close to 200,000 men, the countryside was devastated, and morale in the French army was so badly shattered that soldiers mutinied in more than half of the army’s 112 divisions. During the mutinies, soldiers resolved to no longer advance senselessly in hopeless offensives where death was certain. They would fight to defend France, but they would no longer die for the glory and prestige of high-ranking officers.
Isabelle Dequenne’s father, Alain, fought at Chemin des Dames before his 17th birthday. Her uncles, Alain’s older brothers Hugo and Henri fought there as well. Vincent Auvray, Isabelle’s godfather and the postmaster in her home town of Pont-Bocage was also there, as were Rémy Brechard (the town’s grocer and butcher), Adriene Pasquier, and Marie-Thérèse’s father, Paul Allard. None of these men came back unchanged. Hugo and Henri Dequenne didn’t come back at all.
There is a memorial in the town square in Pont-Bocage. A simple obelisk on a granite plinth, dedicated to the sons of Pont-Bocage who died in the Great War. At it’s base is this inscription:
À NOS MORTS
MAUDITE SOIT LA GUERRE
(for our dead, cursed be war)