At long last I fulfilled an ambition when I visited Nery, site of "L" Battery's and 1 Cavalry Brigade's stand against Von Kluck on 1 Sept. 1914. "L" Battery won three V.C.s that morning. I have heard about this famous action from three speakers at WFA events including Gerald Gliddon, and of course Richard Holmes who covered it on horseback (see his book "Riding the Retreat.") I paid my respects to the men buried in the communal cemetery, one of whom, Gunner Bryant, came from not far away from my home at Stratton Farm, Biggleswade. Armed with a detailed description of the action ("The Fight at Nery", Major A.F. Becke, Journal of the Royal United Service Institute Vol. 64, 1919) and the eyewitness account in Lyn Macdonald's "1914", I was able to envisage what that morning must have been like.
The 13-pounder gun of "L" Battery, Royal Horse Artillery -
The "Nery Gun"
I then went on South, roughly following a route (the Rheims to Compeigne section - in reverse) in Rose Coomb's "Before Endeavours Fade" via Crepy-en-Valois, Betz to Meaux. The Betz to Meaux section is the Battlefield of the Ourcq, 5-9 Sept. 1914, where Manoury's Sixth Army and Gallieni's Army of Paris provided the decisive blow that stopped the German Army during the Battle of the Marne. Equipped with the relevant IGN maps, I found a great deal more than Rose Coombs mentions. Although my 6th edition copy is one of my essential books, I am beginning to realise that her coverage of areas outside the British battlefields is very limited. The Michelin Guide "The Battlefields of the Marne (1914)", published 1919, is still probably the definitive English language guidebook to this battle.
Over 1 mile South of Betz is a Memorial to the Army of Paris. This is a reminder of the famous story of the Taxis of the Marne. The French 7th Division was dropped off about 5 miles West of the memorial at Nanteuil-le-Haudouin on the night of 7-8 Sept. 1914. Many of the villages between Betz and Meaux became famous for a few days during the Battle of the Ourcq.
On the Northern edge of Etrepilly is a French military cemetery in front of which is the second Memorial to the Army of Paris. The communal cemetery over the road had a fascinating plaque on the wall. This was dedicated to Lt-Col Dubujadoux of the Zouaves who fell alongside half his men and three-quarters of his officers on 7 Sept. They recaptured the cemetery but were too weak to hold it. This action is described in "An Alternative Guide to the Western Front" by A.J. Peacock along with other parts of this battlefield.
I went South from Etrepilly on the D140 past French and German military cemeteries. The latter is possibly the closest of all German 1914-18 battlefield cemeteries to Paris. Just before the village of Barcy is the Monument to Notre Dame de la Marne. South of Barcy on the D38 is the Monument des Quatre Routes (the last memorial to the Army of Paris) which is described in more detail in the Michelin Guide. Nearly 2 miles north-east of Meaux is the American Memorial to the French Combatants of the Marne, which is one of the most unusual sculptures I have seen as a memorial (see Rose Coombs).
My penultimate stop was at the cross-roads about half a mile east of Villeroy (4 miles West of Meaux). Here, there is a fascinating Memorial to Charles Peguy, a writer who was killed here on 5 September 1914, aged 41. He was a lieutenant with the 276th Regiment d'Infanterie. There is an orientation table with a fine reproduction of the IGN 1:25,000 map.
Marked on it is the position where he fell, as well as the positions of his regiment, the German infantry and the German artillery. I was able to imagine the scene of the lines of French troops in their "pantalons rouges"charging across the open field, only to be cut down in swathes by the German fire. The casualties were enormous and a massed grave containing Peguy and 132 other men is 400 yards away to the East on the D129.
My final visit that day was to the Statue of General Gallieni which is on the N3, about 3 miles West of Meaux. (N.B. it is on a dual carriageway and can only be approached from Paris.)
Copyright © Charles Fair, April, 1997.
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