SUFFOLK BRANCH, AISNE TOUR, JULY 2014
We set off on our annual tour early on the morning of Wednesday 23 July. Our purpose was to study the activities and actions undertaken by the BEF in the area around the River Aisne. We based ourselves in the intriguing walled city of Laon where all the restaurants and bars we needed were within easy walking distance.
Last year’s visit took us to the Marne where the 1914 German advance was defeated as the Schlieffen finally unravelled. German supplies, energy and time had been heavily consumed by the doughty resistance of the Belgians with their British and French allies.
The German retreat took them to the River Aisne so this was a logical destination for this year’s trip. The heights above the river were a logical defensive position so that’s where the Germans made a stand then started to dig in as they were pursued by the equally weary British. This was the starting point for the 400 miles of trenches that finally stretched from the Channel to the Swiss border.
Our four days in the area gave us an overview of the situation that had developed as the tide turned. We visited the scenes of significant actions at a time of the Great War when the conflict was still one of movement. We also visited the scenes of individual acts of heroism as well as little visited landmarks and cemeteries. We made a total of 29 stands during which we were expertly guided by Tony Taylor-Neale, Dick Rayner, Viv Whelpton, Colin Woods and Mike Lawson.
From the outset we were impressed by the broad bands of commemorative blue cornflowers that are left at the edges of many fields in the battlefield area around Chemin des Dames. These act as a permanent memorial to the sacrifices made there.
Many bridges across the Aisne featured in our studies. These were systematically destroyed or damaged by the retreating Germans. We learnt of the heroic efforts of the Royal Engineers and infantry to repair damage or to improvise other forms of crossing. At the same time we learnt of the difficulties experienced by the Royal Artillery in giving supporting fire to infantry under fire from an enemy by now settling on ground above the maximum elevation of our guns.
A fascinating stand on Friday was at Cave Graffetti, a little visited cave up a long tack. This was used by by sides for medical and rest purposes as the war ebbed and flowed. Regimental carvings adorn the entrance to the cave. The Hampshire Regiment’s crest was flanked by those of both French and German equivalents. Interestingly, there is no sign of any of the cave’s occupants attempting to deface the crests of previous occupants.
Similarly, a fascinating stand was at the Vendresse Communal Cemetery. Situated at the top of challenging slope, this contains a small CWGC section for early casualties of the war. There is a significant number of ‘toffs‘ buried here, giving an indication of heavy price paid by the apparently privileged. We also learnt of the high spirited attitude of many British soldiers at this early stage of the war. We heard of them writing home describing their sporting approach with one letter stating that the war is ‘like a picnic‘ and applauding the freedom from the need to wash for several days!
Our guides explained the fluid nature of the conflict at this stage of the war and the fact that there was, at one point, an 18 mile gap between German forces which could have given the British a decisive advantage if it had been exploited. White flag ruses were a feature of this part of the war leading to unexpected casualties then on to harsh treatment of surrendering Germans.
A very memorable visit was to the Caverne du Dragon, so named because of the smoke that emanated from sterranean German field kitchens during their time of occupation. This massive cavern under Chemin des Dames was used by both German and French forces, sometimes at the same time with resulting paradoxical outcomes. This was also the scene of some of the French mutinies later in the war as well as some of their worst casualties. Last year the area still gave up some 50 tonnes of unexploded munitions.
This trip was a comprehensive and demanding instruction into one lesser known periods and sectors of the Great War. Later in 1914 the BEF was to be moved to Flanders as the two sides dug for the war of attrition that was to ensue.
Our thanks must be extended to all of our guides whose preparation gave us so much to absorb. Also to Dave Hedges for his expert organisation and cheerful marshaling of us all to keep us to schedule.