The Second Battle of the Marne - 1918

March 9 1997 - This fine, warm spring day was devoted to following another part of the route described in the Reims to Compeigne section of  "Before Endeavours Fade" near the Marne, as well as various sites found in other guides.

One hour and twenty minutes after leaving home I arrived at Marfaux which sits in a pretty valley in the heart of one of the most famous wine producing regions in the world. The British Cemetery was created in 1918 as the battle raged around the village and contains 1,129 graves. Marfaux itself marked the furthest point of the German advance in July 1918 in this sector as the allied forces fought to prevent the German Army from surrounding Reims by the south-west. The village was retaken on 23 July 1918 by 51st and 62nd Divisions as part of the allied counterattacks in the Second Battle of the Marne. The Cemetery contains a small Memorial to the New Zealand Missing with 10 names and the grave of Sgt Meikle VC MM Seaforth Highlanders who was killed here on 20 July 1918. A German cemetery containing over 4,000 graves is adjacent.

Next on the itinerary is the Italian Cemetery which is on the D380 a mile or so east of Chambrecy. This contains the graves of 5,000 men who lost their lives in the region in 1918. A plaque recalls that a total of 9,000 Italian soldiers were killed while serving with the two Italian divisions who served on the Western Front in 1918. Their General is buried at the foot of the cross at the head of the cemetery. Over the road is a memorial garden which contains a broken Roman column brought from Italy.

Chambrecy British Cemetery is another half-mile towards the village on the D380 and contains 436 graves. Like Marfaux, it contains the graves of men of the 51st and 62nd Divisions who fell in the allied counterattacks of the Second Battle of the Marne. It also contains some casualties of the 9th Division who fell in June 1918.

The small village of Chamery is where Quentin Roosevelt, son of Theodore Roosevelt the former US president, was killed when he was shot down on 14 July 1918. Here, there is a fine water trough to his memory with the inscription "Only those are free to live who are not afraid to die".

At Nesles there is a fine feudal castle whose ruins look exactly as they do in the Michelin Guide, "The Americans in The Great War Vol 1 - The Marne." Apparently, "the castle was captured by the Americans after three days fighting (28 - 31 July 1918)".

The Oise-Aisne American Cemetery was the original burial place of Quentin Roosevelt, but he was later buried alongside his brother near Omaha Beach in Normandy. The immaculate cemetery is the resting place of 6,012 men. The rose-coloured memorial colonnade contains a chapel with the names of 241 missing.

The small country town of Fere-en-Tardenois was the site of British GHQ from 12 Sept to 8 October 1914 during the Battle of the Aisne. Behind a high brick wall in one corner of the "Grande Place" is the house used by General Sir John French. Pershing also used this house as his HQ in 1918, but he lived across town at 2 rue du Gres. The fine 16th century market hall is exactly as shown in the Michelin Guide.

My penultimate stop was at the Butte de Chalmont. The Butte is a long low hill, which is nearly 600 feet high. It dominates the wide open valley that is the upper reaches of the Ourcq basin. For this reason it was of some tactical importance in July 1918.

This is one of the most wonderful Great War sites that I have yet visited in France. Unaccountably, it does not appear in "Before Endeavours Fade". Instead I learnt of it in a superb new guide to the Western Front: "Premiere Guerre Mondiale des Flandres a l'Alsace."

On the Eastern end of the Butte is the National Memorial to the Second Battle of the Marne. This is the work of the sculptor Paul Landowski (who also created the Moroccan memorial at Senlis) and it was inaugurated 21 July 1935 by President Lebrun. Where the road (D229) crosses the lower slopes of the Butte is a sculpture of a woman. She represents France, and is dressed in a simple cloak and is carrying a shield on her left arm. She is walking slowly forward and is gazing serenely east, over the broad plain.

About 150 yards behind her, on the upper slopes of the Butte, is a group of eight figures called the "Fantomes". The figures represent: a young recruit, an engineer, a machine-gunner, a grenadier, a colonial soldier, an infantryman, a pilot, and in the middle the spectre of death leaving his shroud. This is one of the most powerful pieces of sculpture I have yet seen on a battlefield memorial. As I was there the sun was setting behind the "Fantomes" which were casting long shadows down to the foot of the Butte. The way in which the two sculptures are juxtaposed by an effective use of the landscape, combined with the perfect light conditions gave the site an incredible atmosphere. The effect was quite spellbinding and I could have stayed for hours. Whoever chose the site for the memorial indeed chose well.

(There is an article on Landowski and the Fantomes in "Monuments de Memoire: Monuments aux Morts de la Grande Guerre" pub 1991, MPCIH, Secretariat d'Etat aux Anciens Combattants et Victimes de Guerre.)

The final halt was at the Bois du Chatelet, just south of Brecy. This was the site of one of the German guns, popularly known as Big Berthas, which shelled Paris in 1918. This site is also featured in the same Michelin Guide. The 1919 pictures show the gun platform, but all I could find, exactly in the position described, was a large perfectly circular waterfilled hole. There were also embankments and straight ditches leading into the hole which marked the light railway that was used to bring ammunition to the gun.

Copyright © Charles Fair, May, 1997.

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