CHARLES FAIR

November 11th - Sites around Versailles

I didn't have time to go to a battlefield on Armistice Day, but I had identified several potential WW1 sites on my local map. All are within 30 minutes drive from my home, but none are mentioned in any military guidebook that I have read. To visit them requires a car and a whole day. These sites are all marked on the Michelin map '101 Banlieue de Paris - Du Peripherique a la Francilienne'. This is an essential purchase as some of the navigation is not easy. French road junctions leave a lot to be desired, and many are beyond simple descriptions, so you will need a certain amount of guesswork/trial and error to get around. I recommend visiting them on a Sunday to avoid the traffic.

The first stop was the American Cemetery and Memorial at Suresnes which is superbly maintained by the Battle Monuments Commission. This is mentioned in the book 'American Armies and Battlefields in Europe', so I will not say any more here. There was a very helpful ABMC lady there who showed me a photo album which contained details of several othersites of US WW1 interest in the Versailles and Paris areas.

At 11.30 the local dignitaries appeared, so I was able to watch their wreath laying ceremony. I followed them to their next stop, only a short distance away. This was Mont Valerian, a fort which sits on top of a prominent hill that dominates the Western approaches to the city. The view of the city and the Seine is superb. The fort was built in 1845 and is part of the inner ring of Paris forts. It played a role in 1870-71, and is mentioned in b by Michael Howard.

There are some fine old buildings in the fort. These are all still in use by the military and house an engineer unit. There is a museum to military signals and engineers inside, but this was not open and appears to offer only infrequent public access. The dignitaries formed up in front of a 1914-18 memorial to an engineer unit for another wreath laying ceremony.

The fort was apparently used as a Gestapo Headquarters, and many resistance fighters were executed within. There is a huge Memorial to the Resistance on the hillside just below the outer defences of the fort.

I then navigated a tortuous route to Louveciennes, just north of Versailles. Here the map shows a Mausoleum to Marshal Joffre. (It is signposted, but not well, and is best approached from the South on the N186.) This is located in the grounds of his house, which has some impressive iron gates with his initials. The house is on the top of the hill and appears to be the residence of some well-off Parisian. The mausoleum is approached via a side gate to the garden. It appears that this gate is normally kept locked as the owner has cut a window in the adjacent fence through which the mausoleum can be seen. However, as it was Armistice Day, the gates were open and I was able to walk up to the mausoleum. This is a small circular classical structure, about 10 feet across and about 14 feet high. The Marshal's details are inscribed on the stone slab under which he lies. There were several wreaths from the local community and one from a society which appeared to exist solely to commemorate the Marshal.

The highlight of the day for me came next. This was the Memorial to the Lafayette Squadron, located on the D907 in Marnes-la-Coquette, about 3 miles NE of Versailles. It was a quite unexpected surprise as I had only been told about it by the ABMC lady at Suresnes that morning. Many people will have read about this famous squadron in Alaistair Horne's 'The Price Of Glory'. However, I had not heard of a memorial to the squadron before as it does appear in any guide to the Western Front that I have read. It is worthy of many an itinerary, but only distance from the front has ensured that it is so little known (to fellow Brits at least).

The memorial itself is about the same size as the facade of the Pozieres Memorial to the Missing, and must be one of the largest Great War memorials ever built for a unit of only squadron size. It is in need of a little attention, with 70 years of Paris grime giving it a distinctly unwashed appearance: as a privately funded memorial it does not appear to be the responsibility of either the ABMC or the Armee de l'Air. The inner faces of the central triumphal arch are covered with a list of the men who were killed while serving with the squadron. They are listed in order of the date on which they joined the squadron, and each man's inscription includes the date on which he was killed and the number of kills to his credit. Underneath is a large semi-circular crypt which contains a row of stone tombs, one for each of the fallen. I had presumed that these were empty, and merely symbolic, but I have since found out that 18 pilots rest there.

The next stop was the Memorial to General Pershing at Versailles. This is another privately funded memorial, and the reinforced concrete is showing its age. It is a very simple memorial in the shape of an upended concrete block. It is situated just over 1 mile WNW of the town centre on the crest of a hill on the rue Etats-Unis (D185) to Ville d'Avray. Across the road is an identical memorial to General Lafayette, the Frenchman who helped out the Americans some 150 years before Pershing returned the favour. I have since found out that these two memorials are in fact merely plinths and were originally surmounted by bronze equestrian statues of the two generals. The book "Petain et les Americans" by Jacques le Groignec (1995, Nouvelles Editions Latines ISBN 2-7233-0510-4) has a picture of both memorials at their inauguration on 6 October 1937. The fate of the statues remains a mystery to me.

The other major memorial in Versailles is the National Memorial to the Gendarmerie. It commemorates gendarmes who have fallen in all wars, and one of the panels stated that over 2,000 were killed and over 3,000 wounded in the Great War. It is in the middle of a roundabout in the Place de la Loi, (law) which is one mile to the north of the Chateau on the D186.

My final stop on Armistice Day was at Versailles Communal Cemetery (St.-Gonards). It is shown in "The Silent Cities" and contains nearly 200 Commonwealth graves, 167 British and 3 Canadian from the Great War. These men died in No. 4 General Hospital which must have been located in the town. The graves are mainly 1914 with some 1915 and a few from the Aisne fighting of 1918. It was the first time that I have visited a CWGC cemetery and found no entries in the visitors book, so I felt that I had done my duty that day. The cemetery also contains a 1914-18 French plot, and 1939-45 German and French plots.

The cemetery contains a fascinating plaque to the first French Victims of the Grande Guerre. It stated that at 5 am on 4 August 1914 the croeiser Goeben dropped some obus (shells) on the town, thus killing some citizens, the first victims of the war. I presume that this was a Zeppelin as Versailles is a rather long way inland for this to have been a naval action. This was not an action I had heard of, but suspect that it may have been reported in the British press. Does anyone know anything about this incident? The plaque itself is now incorporated into the base of a modern memorial to civilian victims of war, particularly those killed in North Africa i.e. Algeria.

The next stop was the Memorial to General Pershing at Versailles. This is another privately funded memorial, and the reinforced concrete is showing its age. It is a very simple memorial in the shape of an upended concrete block. It is situated just over 1 mile WNW of the town centre on the crest of a hill on the rue Etats-Unis (D185) to Ville d'Avray. Across the road is an identical memorial to General Lafayette, the Frenchman who helped out the Americans some 150 years before Pershing returned the favour. I have since found out that these two memorials are in fact merely plinths and were originally surmounted by bronze equestrian statues of the two generals. The book "Petain et les Americans" by Jacques le Groignec (1995, Nouvelles Editions Latines ISBN 2-7233-0510-4) has a picture of both memorials at their inauguration on 6 October 1937. The fate of the statues remains a mystery to me.

The other major memorial in Versailles is the National Memorial to the Gendarmerie. It commemorates gendarmes who have fallen in all wars, and one of the panels stated that over 2,000 were killed and over 3,000 wounded in the Great War. It is in the middle of a roundabout in the Place de la Loi, (law) which is one mile to the north of the Chateau on the D186.

My final stop on Armistice Day was at Versailles Communal Cemetery (St. Gonards). It is shown in "The Silent Cities" and contains nearly 200 Commonwealth graves, 167 British and 3 Canadian from the Great War. These men died in No. 4 General Hospital which must have been located in the town. The graves are mainly 1914 with some 1915 and a few from the Aisne fighting of 1918. It was the first time that I have visited a CWGC cemetery and found no entries in the visitors book, so I felt that I had done my duty that day. The cemetery also contains a 1914-18 French plot, and 1939-45 German and French plots.

The cemetery contains a fascinating plaque to the first French Victims of the Grande Guerre. It stated that at 5 am on 4 August 1914 the "croeiser" 'Goeben' dropped some "obus" ( shells) on the town, thus killing some citizens, the first victims of the war. I presume that this was a Zeppelin as Versailles is a rather long way inland for this to have been a naval action. This was not an action I had heard of, but suspect that it may have been reported in the British press. Does anyone know anything about this incident? The plaque itself is now incorporated into the base of a modern memorial to civilian victims of war, particularly those killed in North Africa i.e. Algeria.

Copyright © Charles Fair, April, 1997.

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