by Evelyn McKechnie
On 17th April 2017, French President Francois Hollande became the first French leader to attend a memorial service at the site of one of the most horrific and deadliest battles of World War One – the offensive of the Chemin des Dames. It would go down in history as the most disastrous battle in French history.
The Chemin des Dames is also infamous for the French Army Mutinies, where the élan spirit of the French soldier, the poilu, had finally been broken. The French Army was all but crushed by the Germans on the slopes of the Chemin des Dames. They just could not take anymore, having been pushed to the very end of their endurance and the mutiny began.
It would be the largest mutiny in modern military history with some estimated 40,000 soldiers and 130 regiments involved. Subsequently, the commemoration of Chemin des Dames has always been difficult for the French – just how to you commemorate a major loss and a mutiny?
They did not choose their grave’
President Hollande attended the ceremony that day in April to inaugurate a memorial bronze sculpture commemorating all those who died on the Chemin des Dames in 1917 – soldiers, children, women and the mutineers. The stunning bronze work is inscribed with the words,
‘Ils n’ont pas choisir leur sépulture’: ‘They did not choose their grave’.
The memorial had originally been erected on the California plateau in 1998 for the 80th anniversary of the armistice but despite weighing 1.7 tons it was stolen in August 2014. The four-metre high monument was loaded onto a crane truck and pieces of it were later found in Belgium.
Before that, the memorial had also been desecrated twice. Now in its new location next to the Dragon Cave, the sculptor Haïm Kerm has added one head for each act of vandalism committed against the sculpture. It now has 23 heads instead of the original 20.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
General Robert Nivelle had launched the massive offensive on 16th April 1917, between Soissons and Reims in Picardy. One of the main objectives was to take California plateau, where the Germans had been entrenched since September 1914. This ridge dominated the landscape; it was a natural fortress dominating the plains of the Aisne and was riddled with caves and ancient quarries. One of these you can still visit today, the Dragon’s Cave, the location of the new memorial site.
Nivelle was confident of a quick victory with 1.2 million soldiers, 200 tanks, eight squadrons of fighter planes, 5000 artillery guns, all set along a 40-kilometre front. They would fire over five million shells for 10 days before the assault including 1.5 million large calibre shells. Along with the French, there were 10,000 Senegalese and 20,000 Russians.
What Nivelle did not know was that the entire battle plans had been captured two weeks before by the Germans.
The Germans also had 100 machines guns for every kilometre of the front. The bad weather of snow and rain had turned the battlefield into a quagmire, coupled with the French shelling doing more damage to the battlefield than the German trenches; it would lead to a bloodbath even with the diversionary attacks at Vimy and Arras by the British and Canadians.
The Germans had retreated underground and been ready for the massed infantry assault. The French had no chance and they sustained 40,000 casualties on the first day alone and 120,000 casualties in just five days.
The offensive continued with the 69th Battalion of the Senegalese Infantry reaching the top of the ridge only to be slaughtered to a man. Their efforts are commemorated in the visually stunning memorial entitled ‘The Constellation of Suffering’, nine statues of charred untreated wood looking up to the sky on the slopes of the Chemin des Dames.
With Neville pushing relentlessly for a victory, the soldiers started refusing to go back up the front lines. Many viewed any more attacks as completely pointless and men were being sent on suicidal missions. The soldiers would defend the lines, their hostility to their High Command was very deep-seated but their hostility to the invaders was even stronger. They would hold but not go on.
April 1917 was a perfect storm for the mutiny, many factors involved all came together, years of lice, mud, rats, poor food, the expectation that this offensive would bring an end to the slaughter; it would finally be victory and peace. When this became evident that it was not the case, it was a massive disappointment with the soldiers having a total lack of faith in their High Command.
They also did not home leave regularly and often had it cancelled. Their food was appalling and many times they were sent back up the line with inadequate rest. The war of attrition had taken their toll on the French and Mutinies spread throughout the lines.
About 3,400 ‘mutineers’ appeared before military tribunals and 554 were sentenced to death, most of the sentences were commuted and 27 were executed.
On 15th May Nivelle was replaced with Petain, who immediately began rotating the troops, brought in more home leave, better food. He also started ensuring that the infantry was properly supported by the tanks, aircraft and artillery.
REMEMBERING THE MUTINEERS
Men fighting on their home soil, seeing death and destruction, pushed beyond all endurance, tired, mentally and physically fatigued, the French poilu had finally reached the end of their exhaustion. They would hold but go no further. No more futile deaths, for the mutineers it was their strength in defiance, that finally made the High Command realised that something had to be done. Men could not endure without end.
Prime Minister Raymond Poincare (1926-1929) later pardoned most of those condemned and in 1998, in Craone, the Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin cleared the men who had mutinied saying they should “reintegrate in today’s collective memory.”
They were not cowards and they are remembered in the sculpture by Haïm Kern. It is far easier to remember a victory like Verdun, than a loss like the Chemin des Dames or the mutineers.
The sculpture Haïm Kern said, “The sculpture is the destruction of all these young lives. All the heads are juveniles. Soldiers were often very youth”. They indeed shall not grow old and all are remembered today at the Chemin des Dames.
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