La Journée des Villages Détruits.
Much of the Champagne battlefields are off-limits since they are enclosed by the French Army training area of the Camp de Suippes. The Camp is a live firing area for artillery and is closed to the public. Not surprisingly the area is almost ignored by modern guides, and the only substantial coverage I have found is in the 1919 Michelin Guide 'Les Batailles de Champagne'. The 1:25,000 IGN map 'Suippes' shows tantalising glimpses of trench systems which span the Camp. There is also evidence of many mine craters which mark no-man's land.
However, for one day every other year on the first weekend in September, the Army provides limited public access. This day serves to keep alive the memory of the five ruined villages which lie inside the Camp, and is known as La Journée des Villages Détruits.
The front ran through the Camp continuously from the end of the German retreat after the Marne in 1914 until the Camp was cleared during the Allied offensive of 26 September 1918. In this four-year period the front lines rarely moved except during the French offensives of 25-28 September and 6 October 1915 and the German offensive of 15 July 1918. The five villages all lie in a strip of land about 3 miles wide and all were on or near the front line for at least part of the war.
I turned up at 10.20 am for what turned out to be an extremely well organised event, as well as an excellent PR opportunity for the French Army. A fleet of army buses was deployed to ferry the visitors around the six halts. The buses left the Camp buildings at 15 minute intervals, so one could get off at each halt and catch a later bus. I took nearly four and a half hours to go round the six sites, of which only about one hour was spent in transit.
Each of the five villages appears to be sponsored by one of the units based at Suippes. These units have been responsible for clearing some of the most important buildings at each village. An information board was on display at each village, and these showed the street plans and a selection of pre-1914 and wartime photographs. (Many of these photographs appear in a booklet produced by the Camp de Suippes.)
The first halt was at Perthes-les-Hurlus, a village now largely covered by woodland. It had 151 inhabitants in 1914. The church, school and several other buildings have been identified by the sponsoring unit. The churchyard contains the remains of several graves, as well as a millstone.
Hurlus, a village with 88 inhabitants in 1911, came next. The remains of the 13th century church of St. Remi sit atop a small mound. Part of the sanctuary is still standing and three of the five windows are intact, but most the rest of the building has been reduced to rubble. However, the doorway and the floor of the nave have been uncovered. Several badly damaged headstones from the pre-war cemetery have also been found and these now stand nearby.
The third village, Le Mesnil-les-Hurlus, also has a ruined church on amound. Little else remains of the former village of 97 people, though opposite the church is the floor of the building which served as a combined mairie and school. Three hundred yards east of the church is the Monument to the 64th and 65th R.I.s (Nantes and Angers respectively) which fought here in September and October 1915.
The next bus took me on along the dirt roads past Beausejour Farm, the scene of bloody actions of the 1st Colonial Corps, to the road which runs around the eastern perimeter of the Camp. From here there were views across to the famous Main de Massiges, a hill which was the scene of more fighting in 1915.
The bus soon arrived at Ripont which was a small village of 84 people in 1914. This is the only one of the five villages to have its own marker stone of the type erected by the Touring Club of France. It carries the simple inscription 'Ici fut Ripont' (Here was Ripont) and the street plan of the village in the same way as on similar stones that commemorate the lost villages of Verdun. This village has not been cleared, with the exception of the churchyard, which contains the Monument aux Morts and a German bunker as well as some more recent graves.
The fifth stop was at Tahure which consisted of 185 people in 1914. The church and much of the village sit on a small hill - the Butte de Tahure - another place which became famous during the Great War but which is now largely forgotten. The bases of the walls of the church were rediscovered in 1980, and these have now been excavated. Remarkably the original altar was found, and the bas-relief on its face is largely intact. The foundation stone has been uncovered, and it reads in old French: 'Monseigneur Regnie ... bâtie en l'ane 1734'. Behind the church are the recently discovered remains of a German cemetery, of which two headstones have survived.
The final halt was just inside the western boundary of the camp, slightly north-east of the living village of Souain. This was to enable visitors to see the Foreign Legion Monument and Ossuary. The monument consists of a grey stone wall which surrounds the ossuary that contains the remains of 128 legionnaires who were killed nearby in late September 1915. The monument was erected by the family of one of the legionnaires, Henry Farnsworth, an American who died on 28 September 1915. The inscriptions recalled that Farnsworth was born in August 1890 at Dadham Massachusetts and enlisted in the Legion on 5 January 1915. 'He suffered, fought and died not for endangered home and friends and native land but for the universal cause of Liberty, Righteousness and Goodwill among men.'
The next bus took me back to the start, where there was a static display by a local 1914-18 re-enactment group as well as a selection of modern French Army equipment. In summary, it was a fascinating day, and I enjoyed the chance to talk to some of the officers responsible for the villages as well as local Great War enthusiasts. I recommend making a special effort to attend the next open day in September 1999. (For further information contact the Secrétariat du commandant du camp de Suippes, Camp de Suippes, 51601 Suippes, France Tel: (03) 26 69 37 03)
I completed my discovery of the destroyed villages by driving a short distance south-west of Suippes on the D77 to La Ferme de Suippes military cemetery. Here there is another monument erected by the Touring Club de France which commemorates all five destroyed villages of the Camp de Suippes. This stone is about twice the size of the 'standard issue' memorial such as the one I had seen earlier at Ripont. The base is inscribed with the plans of four of the villages, Ripont being the exception. The cemetery itself contains 7,429 Great War casualties, of which 528 are in two ossuaries.
Copyright © Charles Fair, October, 1997.
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