and Tragedy on the Chemin des Dames
Eric S. Margolis
MONTREAL World War I, which came to an end on the 11th hour
of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918,
is today but a faint, sinister memory, recalled only by red poppies
and barely noticed Remembrance Day and Veteran’s Day ceremonies.
Lest we forget.....
Western Front, December, 1916
twelve months of unimaginable slaughter, the battle of Verdun was
over. Nearly one million French and Germans were dead or wounded.
France rallied to the cry: ‘On ne passe pas! They shall not pass!
An entire French generation perished in the hellish inferno of exploding
shells, machinegun fire, flamethrowers, and poison gas, but the
Germans had been held.
battle’s epicenter, forts Douaumont and Vaux, were retaken by French
General Robert Nivelle and his deputy, Gen. Charles Mangin, known
to all as ‘the Butcher.’ The haughty Nivelle, a gunner, had perfected
a technique of infantry advancing on the heels of rolling artillery
barrages. By this novel method, French infantry was able to storm
German trenches while most enemy troops were still sheltering in
their bunkers. At Verdun, Nivelle’s new tactic had surprised the
Germans dug in around Vaux and Dauaumont, and forced them into a
triumphant Nivelle, France’s new hero, was appointed commander of
the entire Western Front. Nivelle was convinced he could win the
war in one decisive stroke by breaking through German lines in Champagne
between Soissons and Reims. ‘We have the formula,’ Nivelle boasted,
‘victory is certain.’
5th and 6th Armies were ordered to smash through
the German 1st and 7th Armies, which were
dug into a very strong, fortified, 50-mile long position along a
narrow crest of hills above the River Aisne known as the Chemin
des Dames. This strategic barrier had been the scene of many battles
through history, from the days of Charlemagne to Napoleon. Once
breakthrough was achieved, the two French armies were to drive on
the old fortress city of Laon, and then northward into Belgium.
four-division Canadian Corps, stationed in Flanders near Arras,
60 miles to the northwest, was ordered to support Nivelle’s offensive
by launching a diversionary assault near Lens.
message went out to the French troops: ‘The hour has come! Courage,
of French heavy guns, including 405mm monsters, poured massed fire
and gas shells on the German positions in the biggest bombardment
seen on the Western Front since Verdun and the Somme. A steady rain
of shells deluged the German lines, churning up the earth like a
giant plough. The French were convinced no enemy troops could have
survived the titanic bombardment.
and cocky as always, Gen. Mangin, proclaimed: ‘the day after tomorrow,
my headquarters will be in Laon.’
dawn, hundreds of thousands of French infantry went over the top,
preceeded by Nivelle’s ‘secret weapon’ of rolling barrages 100 meters
ahead of the advancing troops, and some 200 tanks. Not since the
heady days of the battle of the frontiers in 1914 had regiments
of blue-uniformed ‘poilus’ charged forward with such glorious ‘elan’,
sword bayonets fixed, battle standards unfurled, bugles calling,
drums beating, crying, ‘Vive la France!’
war, a clever enemy is rarely surprised more than once by innovative
tactics. The Germans, well aware of Nivelle’s impending offensive,
secretly abandoned their front lines. The huge French artillery
barrages thus fell on empty trenches and thin air.
regiments of French infantry surged like a vast tidal wave of blue
across half a mile across no-man’s-land, reached German forward
defenses on the Aisne, and found them... empty.
the confused French milled about , or sought shelter in the ruined
trenches, thousands of concealed German Maxim machine guns and hundreds
of batteries of artillery dug in above on the Chemin des Dames opened
murderous fire into the packed French ranks. German gunners knocked
out 150 French tanks. The French attack, now halted, became a monstrous
massacre. Cought in the open on a 50-mile front, entire battalions
were mowed down; whole regiments were turned into bloody pulp by
German shrapnel. Attempts by valiant French units to storm the Chemin
des Dames and silence the murderous German machine guns were halted
by a wall of steel.
the next day, the French had lost 120,000 casualties, twice the
British losses on the first two days of the catastrophe of the Somme.
Nivelle had predicted only 10,000 dead and wounded, and planning
medical support accordingly. Wounded French soldiers stormed the
few field hospitals in the rear.
by human mercy or military sense, and heedless of cost, Nivelle
and ‘Butcher’ Mangin kept hurling their men at the Chemin des Dames.
After a month of fruitless attacks, French casualties in what became
known as the Second Battle of the Aisne reached 187,000.
the northwest, in the ugly coal fields and slag heaps of Flanders,
the Canadian Corps sought to draw off German forces reinforcing
the Aisne front by launching large-scale frontal attacks against
heavily fortified German positions on Hill 70 near Lens. In this
bloody, but almost forgotten action, over 10,000 Canadians died
or were wounded, toll exceeded only by the 16,000 casualties at
Canada’s Calvary, Passchendaele.
finally conceded defeat and was replaced by Gen. Philippe Petain,
who ahd rallied the army in the darkest days of Verdun. But Nivelle
had broken the French Army on the wheel of the Chemin des Dames.
Troops being marched to the front began singing rebellious songs
and baa’ing like sheep going to slaughter.
in May, as stories of the massacre on the Aisne spread, the veteran
21st Div., which fought heroically at Verdun, mutinied
and refused to go into battle. The division was decimated in the
old Roman form of unit punishment, mutiny ringleaders were summarily
shot or sent to Devil’s Island. The 21st returned to
battle on the Aisne and was slaughtered.
horror ignited massive mutiny along the entire front. By June, 54
divisions half France’s Army had mutinied and refused to fight.
Only two reliable divisions stood between the Germans and Paris.
Incredibly, German intelligence never learned of the mutinies until
months later -the greatest intelligence failure of World War I.
mutinies were ruthlessly put down by Gen. Petain. To this day, France
still keeps secret the number of mutineers executed in 1917 ‘to
give courage to the others.’ The figures range from hundreds up
to 50,000. According to some reports, entire mutinous battalions
were ringed by field guns and massacred at point-blank range.
had Germany learned of the mutinies, the war might have ended in
1917 by negotiations or a German drive on Paris. All sides were
exhausted and war-weary, but no one dared make the first move towards
the war ended in a draw in 1917, Germany’s collapse and defeat the
following year would have been averted and along with it, the
cruel injustice of the Versailles Treaty, and the post-war rapacity
of the victorious allies. If a fair peace had come in 1917, there
would have been no Adolf Hitler to seek revenge for Germany’s humiliation,
no Jewish Holocaust, no communist revolution in Russia, no Stalin
and his White Holocaust of Catholics and Muslims, and perhaps not
the Chemin des Dames, tragedy heaps on tragedy. It was all very
long ago, but we should still weep today, both for the brave soldiers
who fell on both sides, and for suffering mankind.
Eric S. Margolis 2000
Margolis is foreign correspondent for the Toronto Sun.