Villers Cotterets and the Foret de Retz
1st September, 1914 and the Marne, 1918

One fine June day we went to look at some sites in and beside the Foret de Retz. This is a large mixed forest that sits astride the Paris-Soissons highway about 50 miles north-east of Paris. All of the sites are marked on the 1:100,000 (green series) IGN map 'Paris Laon'. Most also appear on the 1:25,000 map (Top 25 series) 2512 OT 'Villers-Cotterets Foret de  Retz'. Many of these sites are covered in either 'Before Endeavours Fade' or the 'Première Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace'.

September 1914 actions

The one famous action that was fought by the BEF on 1 September 1914  was that of Nery. However, the BEF fought a second and equally  important delaying action that day that has not become so well known. This was the action of Villers-Cotterets Forest which is described in the  'British Official History, France and Belgium 1914' vol. 1 (pp 260-262).

The northern part of the forest cloaks a ridge which runs from east to west. A grass ride runs along the top of this ridge and was the main  position of the 4th (Guards) Brigade which was covering the retirement  of the 2nd Division. The 3rd Coldstreams were covering to the west of  the clearing known as Rond de la Reine, with the 2nd Grenadiers to the  east. (The Rond de la Reine is two miles north of Villers Cotterets on the  D81.) The thick forest meant that for both sides the fighting was  confused and "that little or no control was possible". The Brigade was almost continuously in action from 10am to 6pm by which time it had  withdrawn to a position south of Villers-Cotterets.

According to the Official History "the fight cost the 4th (Guards) Brigade) over 300 officers and men. Two platoons of the Grenadiers were surrounded and killed at Rond de la Reine, fighting to the last man." Beside the D81 is a tiny British Cemetery, the Guards Grave. This contains 98 officers and men of the Guards who were buried here in a  single grave. One of them is Lt-Col the Hon. George Morris, the C.O. of  the Irish Guards, who was killed in this first major engagement of his  regiment. Nearby is a private monument that was placed by the mother of 2Lt George Edward Cecil, Grenadier Guards. It honours him as well  as those Guardsmen that fell here on 1 September 1914. He was the  only son of Lord and Lady Cecil. He was 18 when he died and is also  buried in the Guards Grave.

On the D81, about 1 mile east of Mortefontaine is the Monument to  Gaston de Gironde. According to the "Première Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace" he was a lieutenant in the 16th Dragoons who was  killed during a cavalry charge which "counts among the greatest feats  of arms of the French cavalry". On 10 September 1914 his cavalry  squadron charged a German aircraft squadron which was parked on  the open plateau in the vicinity of the monument. The monument recalls  this deed, as well as listing the other men killed in the action. The  lieutenant is buried about two miles to the south in Vivieres Communal Cemetery and his grave abuts the centre of the far wall of the cemetery.   Several of the men that are listed on the monument are also buried in  the cemetery.

[This was one of the actions fought by the 5th Cavalry Division (see also  Some Sites South of Soissons). It is described in more detail in "A French Cavalry Raid at the Marne" by Lt Sywell Tyng which was first  published in "Cavalry Journal" Sept/Oct 1934 and later republished in  'Gun Fire' No. 23 (no date).]

The Second battle of the Marne 1918

The Forest of Retz also played a role in the 1918 fighting. On or near the edge of the forest are several sites which we followed by starting near the north-west corner, and then circling clockwise around the edge.

Five miles west of the Rond de la Reine, almost at the western end of the forest ridge, is a Memorial to Lt Bernard de Girval. It is marked on both maps, but may take some finding since it is about 40 yards north of the nearest track. The memorial is a simple block of stone surmounted by a rusty iron cross. According to the plaque that is set into the front he was a pilot in 73 Spa "les Cigognes" who was killed when his aircraft was shot down here on 30 June 1918.

Near the eastern edge of the forest is a monument which marks the position of General Mangin's observatory. The monument has a carving of the observatory - a tall wooden tower which looked through the treetops - from where he directed the offensive of 18 July 1918. Beside the road is a private monument to Lt. Henri de Chasseval of the 11th Dragoons who was killed here on 12 June 1918.

Just outside the north-eastern edge of the forest is the village of St Pierre-Aigle. Here, west of the village beside the D17 there is the Monument to the 418th R.I. which recaptured the village between 28 June and 2 July 1918.

Also north-east of the forest beside the N2 is the Monument to Mangin's Army. This 20 foot high obelisk of white stone commemorates the troops that fought under General Mangin in July 1918. All the participating French, American, British and Italian divisions are listed as well as the Czechoslovak brigades. (Note that this monument is on the northern side of a busy dual carriageway and should be approached from the Soissons direction (NE) so that one can pull in beside it. If one comes from the other way one has to cross four lanes of fast-moving traffic, vault the crash barrier and cross the hedge of the central reservation, and then repeat the experience to get back to one's car.)

From here we headed south on the D17 to Longpont which is one of the prettiest villages that we have found in this part of France. It is home to a Cistercian Abbey, which was already partially in ruins before 1914. According to the Michelin Guide, 'The Americans in The Great War Vol 1 - The Marne', the Germans captured the village on 31 May 1918, with the French retaking it two days later. The village was taken again during the German offensive against the Forest of 3 June, and was finally secured by the Allies on 11 July. The village was ruined during the battle, and, with the exception of the Abbey, has been restored. There is a fine 13th century fortified gatehouse. I was able to take several "then and now" photos. It was hard to imagine the battle raging around this tranquil village as we sat outside the Hotel de l'Abbaye having a beer and watching the world go very slowly by. (The two star hotel of the "Logis de France" network looks as if it would be a pleasant place to stay.)

A mile and a half west of Longpont on the D2 is the Monument to Joost van Vollenhoeven. He was the governor of French West Africa and a captain in the Regiment Infantry Colonial de Maroc (RICM). He was killed near Parcy on 19 July 1918. (see 'Some sites South of Soissons'.) The fine bas relief carving depicts his last combat, as well as scenes of his colonial service in Indochina and West Africa. A profile of his face dominates the carving. On either side are citations to him and the regiment.

From there we went back into the village and followed the D17 southwards skirting the edge of the forest. Where this road meets the D973 is the Monument des Loups. This commemorates the 128th D.I. who were known as "les Loups" - the wolves - after the divisional emblem. This monument marks one of the extreme points of the German advance of June 1918. The triangular obelisk carries a bronze of a wolf on each face and lists the divisional battle honours. Due east across the valley of the River Savieres one can see a wooded flat-topped hill. This is the Bois de Hautwisson which was captured by the 5th D.I. on 18 July 1918 when it exploited a gap created by the 128th D.I. (See pp 232-233 of "Between Mutiny and Disobedience: the case of the French 5th Infantry Division in World War I" by Leonard V. Smith.)

Half-a-mile north of Fleury (2.5 miles east of Villers-Cotterets) is the Monument to the 64 and 264 R.A.C. It appears on both maps, but there is nothing in any guide book or on the monument itself which gives any further information as to why it is there. I later found out from an information board at another site that it commemorates an action on 3 June 1918. (I think these were field artillery units: Régiment d'Artillerie de Campagne).

Our final halt, Villers-Cotterets, itself remained just behind the allied lines, apart from a brief occupation by German forces in early September 1914. It was home to several military hospitals, and the men who died in these can be found in the military cemetery which is on the northern edge of town. It contains 3,411 French casualties of the Great War, of which 933 are in two ossuaries.

Copyright © Charles Fair, July, 1997.

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