Guise - 29th August, 1914

In July I had to go back to 'Blighty' for a few days. This required a drive up to the English Channel to catch 'Le Shuttle', which of course meant that I could have a few hours on the battlefields en route. I took the opportunity to visit the little known battlefield of Guise which can be found about 12 miles east of St Quentin.

The Battle of Guise took place on 29 August 1914, three days after the BEF's crucial delaying action at Le Cateau. At Guise the French Fifth Army made a vital counter-attack against von Bulow's Second Army. The Fifth Army was commanded by General Lanrezac, and had suffered a major setback at the Battle of Charleroi 21 to 23 August. Lanrezac seems to have been a hapless commander who, according to John Terraine in 'Mons', had largely lost his nerve after Charleroi. His relationship with the BEF commander Sir John French started in a fog of mutual incomprehension and worsened to mutual distrust, and his relationship with G.Q.G, the French High Command, was scarcely better. However, Guise was his finest hour.

The sites on this battlefield are ignored by almost all the guidebooks that I own, though the most interesting are mentioned in 'Premiere Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace'. They are all marked on the 1:100,000 IGN (green series) map 4 'Laon-Arras'.

I started at the Franco-German military cemetery at Le Sourd, about 5 miles south-east of Guise, which is one of the most moving cemeteries that I have ever visited. The area around Le Sourd is where Franchet d'Esperey's I Corps took on the German Guard Corps. The cemetery is witness to this struggle and was started by the German Army. On the left of the entrance is the French plot which contains 1,333 soldiers, of which 571 are in an ossuary. Unusually their graves are marked by stones on the ground rather than the standard crosses, as well as several individual monuments. The German plot to the right of the entrance contains a large number of individual monuments which commemorate junior officers of the Guard. These were aristocrats with names such as Hauptmann von Witzleben and Leutnant Freiherr von Plettenberg (who was presumably related to the Guard Corps commander, General von Plettenberg). A Leutnant von Bismarck is commemorated on a large monument at the end of the cemetery. A total of 727 German soldiers are buried here, with the other ranks being grouped by battalion and company under company headstones.

Guise itself is a sleepy small town which is overlooked by a ruined citadel which was closed when I tried to visit it. On the southern edge of town at the junction of the N29 and D946 is the Monument to the French 5th Army which commemorates the battle.

Another mile south on the D946 is the appropriately named 'La Desolation' Franco-German military cemetery. This was also started by the German Army, and in the centre is a tall German Monument to the battle in grey stone. On either side and behind this are buried 2,332 German soldiers, of which 911 are in an ossuary. In front are 2,643 French soldiers, of which 1,491 are in two ossuaries. The French casualties include many from the offensives of October 1918 as well as Guise. There are also 31 Belgian and 48 British soldiers.

From there I headed south-west to Bertaignemont Farm which is on the D586. This farm was the site of one of the most dramatic events of the battle, and a rare scene that did not survive the onset of trench warfare. Elements of the 5th D.I. were sent to secure the farm early on the morning of the 29th, but were unable to do so because of a storm of German fire. The 39th R.I. of the division eventually secured the farm in the early evening. The regimental diary recorded that at 1900 hrs 'the fire having ceased, we entered Bertaignemont, the colonel in the lead, flag deployed, and the band playing the Marseillaise'.

The farm sits on the top of a hill, and dominates the bare slopes all round. I could not see anything that showed that it had ever been involved in a battle. The old buildings have been joined by several newer constructions. However, the site is worth visiting if only to imagine the scene: lines of poilus in their 'pantalons rouges' storming the hill whilst taking heavy casualties, followed by a ceremonial entry into the farm as if on pre-war manoeuvres. A magnificent but tragic example of 'la gloire*'and the 'elan' of the French infantry in attack.

The division held the farm overnight, but at 10.30 the next morning it was ordered to give up its hard-won gains and continue the retreat. The total divisional casualties at Guise (killed wounded and missing) were 23 officers and 1,865 men. (The Division's part in the battle is explained in 'Between Mutiny and Disobedience: the case of the French 5th Infantry Division in World War I' by Leonard V. Smith pub 1994, Princeton University Press.)

From there I went further south-west to Origny Ste-Benoite. South-east of this village is a large German cemetery which contains more monuments to the events of 29 August 1914. A few hundred yards away, beside the road to Pleine-Selve is the smallest French cemetery that I have ever seen. This consists of one mass grave - created by the German Army - which contains 87 casualties of Guise. This is backed by a monument to the dead of the 6th and 119th R.I.s of 1914. Lying on the ground behind this monument I found the original German memorial.

As a postscript, one final casualty of the battle should not be forgotten. Lanrezac was sacked by Joffre on 3 September just before the Battle of the Marne and was replaced by the impetuous Franchet d'Esperey. The British liaison officer attached to the Fifth Army, E.L. Spears, gives an excellent account of Guise and of Lanrezac in his book 'Liaison 1914'. Whatever his failings as a commander, Lanrezac should at least be remembered for his success at Guise, a battle that caused von Kluck to change direction, and which helped to make certain the victory of the Marne. The last word on Lanrezac and Guise should be left with Spears (p. 275): 'At Guise he manipulated his units with the consummate skill of an expert at the great game of war, but he played his hand without zest or faith, sardonically observant of the G.Q.G. which had forced the cards into his hand, and on whose entire responsibility, to his mind, the game was being played out.'


Copyright © Charles Fair, October, 1997.

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